Not content with shaping Turkey’s history, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is about to change its geography, too, by building an alternative to the Bosphorus, raising hackles at home and alarm in Russia.
Critics accuse Erdogan of pursuing a vanity project that would open up Istanbul to unbridled construction and put the government into deep and largely unnecessary debt.
Environmentalists hate it, as does the Kremlin, which fears that Erdogan’s Canal Istanbul would give NATO member Turkey broader control over passage between the Black and Mediterranean seas.
A group of Turkish retired admirals even risked Erdogan’s wrath by warning that he must place his new canal under the terms of an old treaty regulating the use of strategic straits.
The mercurial Turkish leader, whose 18-year rule saw him span the Bosphorus with towering bridges and build a sprawling airport on a remote patch by the Black Sea, said his canal “will breathe new life into the region.”
“Whether you like it or not, we are starting and we will build it,” Erdogan said earlier this month.
Anthony Skinner, of Britain’s Verisk Maplecroft risk consultancy, said the canal was “the jewel in the crown” of what Erdogan gleefully calls his “crazy projects.”
“The realization of the project would represent a crowning moment in Erdogan’s rags-to-riches story,” Skinner said. “The boy from the wrong side of the tracks in Istanbul registering unprecedented success as a politician, becoming mayor of Istanbul, prime minister and then president with full executive powers: a president who changed the shape of Turkey’s beating heart — Istanbul.”
A 2019 environmental impact study estimated that the 45km waterway’s cost at 75 billion liras (US$9.11 billion at the current exchange rate).
It would cut through land to the west of Istanbul that was once envisioned as an evacuation zone in case a major earthquake hits the megapolis of 15.5 million people, which sits on an active fault.
Funding for the project due to start next month is unclear.
Plans for a model under which rich investors — possibly from China — receive temporary ownership rights are complicated by geopolitical and environmental considerations.
The most fervent critic is Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who won Turkey’s biggest and most fabled city for the main opposition Republican People’s Party in 2019.
Imamoglu told foreign media that property around the canal has been awarded to Erdogan’s political allies in the construction and real estate sectors and his municipality has been left out of the process.
“Let me put it bluntly: the primary reason behind Erdogan’s motivation is money, money, money,” Imamoglu said.
Russia fears that Erdogan is building a new way for NATO warships to enter the Black Sea.
Moscow and the retired Turkish admirals are pressing Erdogan to put the canal under the terms of the 1936 Montreux Convention.
Atilla Yesilada, a Turkey specialist at Global Source Partners in New York, said that Erdogan might see the new canal as a means to negotiate better relations with Washington.
“It is possible that Erdogan is contemplating to trade off free passage for NATO ships to the Black Sea for [relief from] sanctions,” which Washington has slapped on Turkey for its purchase of Russian arms, Yesilada said.
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